On Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping donned a uniform to greet the soldiers and masses at a parade to mark 90 years since the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The world is used to such displays of power by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, but not by China’s government.
Xi is thus sending a clear signal. The PLA is important to him, and he wanted to use the anniversary celebration to show both the Chinese people and the world that, though the army may have decreased in size, it has increased in strength.
DW’s Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.
The parade – which took place in Zhurihe in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where China’s biggest and most modern training base is located – was intended to show off this strength. All kinds of new arms were displayed, at least half of them for the first time, including various state-of-the-art missiles and two new jets.
About 12,000 soldiers from the PLA’s five main branches – the ground force, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force – paraded alongside tanks and long-range missiles.
In the past five years, the separate branches of the PLA have undergone a restructuring and modernization process. In March of this year, the government announced the highest defense budget in Chinese history: $142 billion dollars (120 billion euros). International estimates put the number at closer to $200 billion. Even if this were the case, it would still only amount to a third of the US military’s budget. Yet China’s economy is already bigger than the US’s in terms of purchasing power.
A sleeker force
A large proportion of the military budget will go toward new technology, submarines, missiles and vehicles. In April, China finished constructing its second aircraft carrier. There are plans to reduce military personnel by 300,000. This has caused uproar in the ranks. Nonetheless, boasting 2 million soldiers, the PLA remains the biggest military in the world.
The vamped-up PLA made a great impression. In terms of quality and military strength, it may not yet be comparable to the US’s, but the parade marks a historical turning point for China. At the National People’s Congress in Beijing, Xi spoke of an army that could defend could protect China’s sovereignty against all attacks at all costs. He also said the government intended to contribute to worldwide peace and stability. This is a far cry from military reserve shown by China over the past decades. It is a signal that China is prepared to act if its people or borders are threatened.
Xi said China would never itself attack or seek to expand. But where exactly do the country’s borders lie in the government’s view? China’s neighbors are not always very certain. What is clear, for example, is that the country intends to defend “its” islands in the South China Sea – even though several neighbors appear to have legitimate claims to them, as well. This issue concerns Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations. The roads that China is constructing in unmarked regions in the Himalayas on the border with Bhutan are a cause for concern in India.
In the past, the world has witnessed international peace missions turn into unilateral invasions. Where will China draw the line? We simply do not know. The country recently set up a military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, with the announced intent of fighting pirates. This makes absolute sense. But, surely, officials would want to demonstrate an improved PLA and give China more influence in the world. There are plenty of potential scenarios in which China’s army might defend the country’s interests. North Korea is one example of how China could show more military might. US President Donald Trump has already called on China to be more firm against North Korea. Even the hawks in Washington doubt that China will do this, however. Praising China over and over again for its resolve to remain passive and reasonable and at the same time reminding the government that it will be taken at its word is surely the right approach.